(I understand that this is a rather peculiar way to announce that I've returned to blogging, but that's just me, freewheelin' and always keepin' you on your toes.)
Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007)
PREFACE: The following piece must be considered as a completely subjective, rather phenomenological experience. I went into this movie this afternoon completely expecting not to enjoy it. I was also thinking about Tim Burton, since Sweeney Todd's trailer played before the movie started. Also, I don't like agreeing with my grandparents about movies; call it a rather snobby, contrarian reaction I seem to have when we see movies together. (They hated the film, by the way.)
Beowulf certainly bears little resemblance in visual style to the literary form of the oldest known work of English literature. While the plot of the first two sections of the poem are more or less intact, Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman's script veers toward the level of trashy camp throughout. The most blatant and controversial shift is in the characterization of Grendel's mother: from gross old hag Beowulf battles and beheads to sleek golden Angelina Jolie who corrupts the hero and poisons his future, this is certainly not your momma's Beowulf.
Beowulf's most unconscionable sin is its images. Director Robert Zemeckis retreads his 2004 hit The Polar Express, using motion capture technology to render the actors completely lifeless. What's more, the movie never uses this technology organically; as one reviewer has pointed out, the movie feels like a vehicle for showing off what movies are going to look like in 5-10 years. This terrifies me. Any technology that attempts to monopolize film aesthetics must be taken extremely seriously for the danger that it poses. Nothing of interest comes from motion capture in Beowulf; it is another excuse for Zemeckis to be a lazy, kid-in-a-candy-store kind of filmmaker. (A recent re-viewing of Forrest Gump only confirms this feeling.)
The conflict which runs counter to Zemeckis's technological indulgences is the script by Avary and Gaiman. (They apparently wrote it in the late 1990's, and envisioned it as a small-budget, gritty action piece; Zemeckis subsequently talked them out of it once the project exited development hell in 2005.) The dialogue is nothing less than hilarious camp, pulpy trash that the two men are clearly having fun with. The scene in which Beowulf (Ray Winstone) removes all of his clothing and armor to sleep and fight naked is one of the most homoerotically ridiculous things I have seen in a long while. But their most interesting triumph is the revamping of the poem's third act.
Beowulf is a poem of heroism and male love, but lacking in any psychological complexity. Ever the mythical revisionist, Gaiman, along with Avary, transform the story to give as much sympathy toward Grendel as they would Beowulf. Crispin Glover--who may be America's most bizarre actor--gives a very sweet, anguished performance as the flesh-eating troll. His actions can be seen as righteous vengeance against the father who abandoned him. Similarly, making Beowulf procreate with Grendel's mother, rather than kill her, turns him into an arrogant, petty fortune-hunter, whose entire legacy is called into question. The final moments of Beowulf's life call to mind the famous dictum of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
At the end of the day, Beowulf is a strange film, filled with authorial tension: repugnant for Zemeckis's fetishization of technology and his sex-and-gore-for-sex-and-gore's-sake visual treatment, and fascinating for the revisionist weirdness of Avary & Gaiman's script, along with the strength of the performances. (Seeing pudgy, middle-aged Ray Winstone as a muscly badass is almost worth the price of admission alone.) If this is the future of movies, we can only hope the CG-mongers of Hollywood continue to use scripts like this one.